Plastic pollution is bad, but food waste is even worse – Low Calorie Diets Tips

Single-use plastic is a huge environmental problem, but it can help limit food waste—another big problem. Tackling both requires ingenuity.

In 1970, Coca-Cola studied the environmental impact of making reusable glass bottles and found that single-use plastic bottles could be better in many contexts. In the early 1990s they switched to plastic.

Plastic is now presented as a problem to be solved. There is a global push to ban plastic, especially single-use packaging. The EU has issued guidelines, the UN Environment Assembly has pledged to end plastic pollution and non-profit organizations have signed global plastic pacts.

The environmental impact of the proliferation of plastic packaging is increasing, and there is evidence that microplastic particles end up in human food, with human health impacts gradually attracting attention.

It therefore seems paradoxical that Coca-Cola could have chosen plastic based on environmental values. The 1970 study used a method now known as life cycle assessment. It measures materials, energy, waste and emissions at every step of the manufacture, use and disposal of packaging and attributes them to potential environmental impacts.

For commercial reasons, the full results of the Coke study were not published, but abstracts published in 1976 said that the shipping of heavier reusable glass bottles and the resources required to maintain such systems meant single-use plastic bottles were usually preferable.

LCA is a powerful tool because it can compare the impacts of different systems with dependencies between inputs and outputs. The related industrial systems may have evolved since the 1970s, but the example of cola illustrates that the method often challenges prejudices about what might be the best environmental choice.

An LCA is a good tool to examine complex ecological trade-offs, especially since one of the key industries running parallel to single-use plastics, the food industry, is linked to another global problem: food loss and waste.

According to the UN, 20 to 30 percent of the food produced is wasted. If global food waste and loss were a country, it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases on earth.

The energy that went into growing the food, the fuels and energy of the supply chain, and the greenhouse gases released when food spoils all contribute significantly to this amazing statistic. Somewhat counterintuitively, life cycle assessments of single-use plastics and food waste can show that the impacts of climate change from food waste can dwarf those of packaging.

The packaging is designed for a number of purposes. Good packaging helps extend shelf life by protecting food from shock, heat and cold, various harmful gases, and light. Often this happens across land, sea and air as our supply chains become more global and complicated.

Packaging also plays a role in preserving food once it enters the home. Moisture-reducing sachets, resealable zips, instructions on the packaging for correct storage, best-before dates or best-before dates and sophisticated technologies such as barrier properties or gas catchers serve to keep food optimally.

Consumers often fail to recognize the purpose or benefits of packaging in terms of preventing food waste.

When reducing packaging leads to more food waste, a nuanced and sophisticated approach is needed to address both of these issues. Ultimately, the best option for the environment is to reduce both excess packaging and food waste.

In Australia, the 2025 targets of making packaging recyclable, reusable or compostable are gaining traction. They are loosely aligned with related European movements. Such an approach not only encompasses packaging design and manufacture; End-of-life systems must also be prepared for these changes, otherwise all of this design effort will go to waste.

Education can encourage consumers to recycle, reuse and compost effectively. Historically, consumers have shown that they can learn new waste management programs, and scientists have spent significant time analyzing which education strategies are most effective.

Food packaging could be discarded when not needed. UK charity WRAP recently published a study detailing where there are opportunities to reduce packaging across a range of fresh produce categories.

Where packaging is still needed to reduce food waste due to long supply chains or perishable goods, being recyclable, reusable or compostable can help reduce end-of-life plastic problems.

Educating consumers about the role packaging plays in reducing food waste and how to ensure packaging is recycled in a circular system would likely need to go hand in hand with this approach for consumers to become active change makers.

If the world were to move towards a packaging-free scenario across the board, the entire supply chain and the way people as a society interact with food would need to be fundamentally rethought.

Without moving to a distributed production and delivery system, the goal of zero packaging would be difficult to achieve. The sheer distance and time it takes to ship food—particularly perishable fresh produce—from centralized farms in edible condition makes this nearly impossible. Solutions require creativity. Perhaps micro farms will be set up across metropolitan areas in the future. As technology advances, these sites could consist of urban indoor or vertical farming to maximize control, volume, and efficiency in small or dense spaces.

Likewise, people may need to go back to eating seasonal produce and buy them closer to harvest time. Or maybe the industry is developing a way to produce off-season food in microfarms, or produce crops that are more resilient to unpacking.

Such attributes would likely require bioengineering, climate control, and nutrient dosing, as well as immense “intelligence”, locations, and resources.

Transitioning to a fully circular economy – where organic waste is processed in cities alongside urban farms to “feed” the system and repeat the cycle – can help. In line with such visions for the future, a number of other issues would need to be addressed and actions taken.

People have changed cities before. Rome, the thriving capital of modern Italy, is known to have been built on the ruins of millennia-old Rome.

It’s possible that the worsening of environmental problems and the ecological footprint of the damage already done may force humanity into a future more radical than an ordinary plastic Coke bottle could ever have predicted.

(This story has not been edited by Devdiscourse staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)

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